In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a collection of the official teachings of the Church, we read the following: “we profess that ‘the sacraments of the new law were…all instituted by Jesus Christ our Lord’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1114).
This claim seems obvious enough. However, the Sacrament of marriage, which we’re beginning to look at this month, is somewhat different from the rest of the sacraments insofar as marriage existed before the coming of Jesus. It is clear that marriage, although it wasn’t sacramental in the same way that it is now in the Church, existed long before Jesus.
The Church points out to us that “the matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1601).
Great…what does all that mean? It means that the marriage bond between a man and a woman is something that God has established in the order of nature, even before Jesus and the Church came along. “The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1603). In other words, even if we bracket out Jesus and the Church, we would still have marriages occurring (whereas, for example, it wouldn’t make sense to have baptisms or confirmations taking place). And in looking at marriage even as a natural institution, it is still evident that the committed lifelong marriage bond between man and woman is primarily ordered toward two things: (1) the good of the spouses and (2) the procreation and education of children.
What Jesus has done in the Sacrament of Marriage, then, is taken the “raw material” of natural marriage, which existed since the beginning of mankind, and raised it “to the dignity of a sacrament” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1601). Before Jesus there were marriages, but because of Jesus, Christian marriages are now raised to the level of a sacrament. Christian marriages are no longer just natural but are now supernatural.
One reason for this - for why Christian marriages are sacramental - is because they are now ordered to a higher purpose - a supernatural purpose - again, because of Jesus. As noble as it is, Christian marriage is no longer just about the spouses loving each other and raising children to be a happy family in this life. Christian marriage is that and much more. Sacramental Christian marriage is now also about the spouses getting one another and their children to the supernatural happiness of God’s own life - it’s about getting the family to Heaven.
In other words, what Jesus does with marriage is He takes something that is already good and makes it even better! He takes natural marriage - something already good and beautiful in itself - and He elevates it to something even better. He makes it a channel of His grace, a seedbed for His Divine life to grow and flourish. We’ll explore this more next month.
As always, please feel free to send any questions to email@example.com
Fr. Michael Bovino